Sight Magazine – Disability Access: 10 Ways to Make Your Place of Worship Disability-Less


United States

Too many people with disabilities make excuses when they ask for access to places of worship.

“It’s not in our budget,” religious leaders will tell the wheelchair user who can’t fit into a toilet stall. Or, “We can’t make this modification just for you.”

Members of the Beloved Everybody community pose during an art installation project in Los Angeles in May. PHOTO: Courtesy of Beloved Everybody

Budget constraints are real, but all too often enabling greater access for people with disabilities is simply not a priority. Representing 15% of the world’s population, people with disabilities are considered the “largest minority in the world”, according to the World Health Organization.

However, once a faith group decides to address disability access, they realize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Budget constraints are real, but all too often enabling greater access for people with disabilities is simply not a priority. Representing 15% of the world’s population, people with disabilities are considered the “largest minority in the world”, according to the World Health Organization.

“Accessibility is a very broad category and means a lot of different things to different people,” explained Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a longtime disability justice advocate and associate professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown. “I am a wheelchair user myself and have certain basic accessibility needs and aspirations, things that make me feel welcome in a place. But those needs, if you were in conversation with someone who had a cognitive disability, or someone who is deaf, blind, or autistic, their accessibility needs are really different.

Although there is no complete checklist, there are many ways to make churches, synagogues and mosques more welcoming spaces. Religion News Service spoke with leaders, scholars and activists with disabilities to highlight their suggestions on how to make religious places more accessible.

Expand your leadership. Who makes decisions about community programs, building upgrades, and funds? If the answer does not include a person with a disability, chances are accessibility is being overlooked. “Part of the reason churches have mostly become unintentionally exclusive is that when they construct ideas of what the church should look like, they never include people with disabilities,” Lamar Hardwick, author of Disability and the Church and pastor of Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Georgia, RNS told RNS. “And so naturally you’re going to continue to create spaces that don’t include them because you don’t have their voices at the table.”

Check your minbar/bimah/desk. The ramps and lifts are great. But congregations should also ensure that people can access podiums, lecterns and pulpits. “Even in communities that have prioritized wheelchair access, there is often an implicit assumption that wheelchair users are on the pews, not at the head of prayers,” Watts Belser said.

Watch your words. To associate blindness or deafness with sin can be both alienating and offensive. “In my temple, we probably sing one to three hours a day. And I can tell you there’s ableist language everywhere,” said Georgia Kashnig, a doctoral student at Georgetown University and a Buddhist practitioner. “What we sing in the morning says something like, ‘She heals the blind.’ He basically uses the language of blindness to talk about delusion and lack of spiritual awakening. Take care to assess language insensitivity to people with disabilities and be responsive when discriminatory language is reported.

My body is not a request for prayer

“My body is not a request for prayer” and author Amy Kenny. PHOTO: Courtesy images

Do not pray without permission. Like the title of Shakespeare scholar Amy Kenny’s new book My body is not a request for prayer indicates that people with disabilities – especially those with physical disabilities – are often the unwitting recipients of prayers asking God to remove their disability. Although some people with disabilities may ask for prayers for healing, it is never appropriate to assume. Many people in disability communities view their disability as something to be celebrated, not cured. “The unsolicited prayers come from a place of wanting to completely erase disability. And I think they don’t recognize that people with disabilities are at the forefront of the work God is doing in and with humanity through the scriptures,” Kenny told RNS.

Do not point. Post signs and accompany. Hardwick, who is known online as “the autism pastor,” told RNS that good signage can be a huge help for those who are neuro-divergent. “It’s anxiety-inducing when you go to an establishment where you don’t know where everything is and people tell you instead of taking you.” Hardwick added that places of worship should also train volunteers to accompany people where they are going, rather than just giving directions or pointing.

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Provide multiple ways to pray. Worship is enhanced when a congregation embraces multiple ways of connecting with God, says Bethany McKinney Fox, founding leader of Beloved Everybody, a Los Angeles community for people with and without developmental disabilities. Offering multiple ways to pray, reflect, or engage the scriptures allows participants to worship in a way that is meaningful to them. “Create space for more embodied forms of expression, space for more emotional connections, space for different creative and artistic expressions,” McKinney Fox said.

Keep the cult at a distance. Zoom and Facebook Live have made this easier than ever, but Watts Belser notes that faith groups shouldn’t go on autopilot when it comes to remote options. “[S]Some of the most meaningful forms of remote access allow people to fully participate and engage in meaningful ways, rather than settling for a lackluster live stream by default,” Watts Belser wrote to RNS. “It’s great to plan for multiple modes of access, because it takes into account the diversity of people’s needs and wants. »

Disability Advocates in the United States1

Pastor Lamar Hardwick speaks at the Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Georgia during a June 19 service. Hardwick is known online as the “Pastor of Autism.” IMAGE: Courtesy of Tri-Cities Church

Consider communicating. Depending on their disability, people may rely on closed captioning, sign language interpreters, audio recordings or large print to receive information. Noor Pervez, community organizer and director of accessibility for Masjid al-Rabia, a mosque and Islamic community center in Chicago, told RNS that religious groups should use clear language and “easy to read” materials. “[P]People with intellectual and developmental disabilities can’t easily participate if you don’t give us the dignity to give us equal access to what you’re talking about,” Pervez said. “It also has cross-effects on people who are learning the spoken language or who haven’t had access to as much formal education.”

Consider lessons on inclusion. Rabia Khedr, CEO of DEEN Support Services, a Canadian disability support organization founded by Muslims with disabilities, says many religions, including Islam, already accommodate the needs of people with disabilities, but adherents do not often do not apply their own religious teachings on the inclusion of people with disabilities. members. Kenny agreed, saying a lot of people don’t really understand the needs of people with disabilities. “Ableism is present in so many of our systems, structures and communities, but it’s really hard to get people to recognize where there is ableism, let alone change the culture to allow for greater accessibility. “

Persevere. Disability activists say working for disability justice isn’t limited to Disability Awareness Month (March, US) or Disability Pride Month (July, US) . It is a constant effort which must be integrated into the life of your community. Says Hardwick: “Make it part of your church’s ethos so it erodes stigma and is something that is talked about often.”


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